Friday, 12 August 2016

This bee lives on the edge—of an active volcano

By Devi Shastri Jul. 29, 2016 , 5:00 PM

They call it “the kill zone.” Just outside the Nicaraguan capital city of Managua, the Masaya volcano smokes as magma sloshes and bubbles near its surface. Clouds of noxious fumes and slow-cooling lava wipe out any traces of life. But when a team of scientists visited, they saw something unexpected: life. A little bee, Anthophora squammulosa, was zipping through the ash heaps looking for nectar and burrowing in a pile of volcanic debris. The find, a shock on this unforgiving mountain, makes these insects the first of their genus to be found living in volcanic ash, a rare home for any bee.

The search started when pollination ecologist Hilary Erenler was researching her main passion, neotropical butterflies. Erenler, a visiting researcher at the University of Northampton in the United Kingdom, has been traveling to Masaya since 2008 mostly on her own dime to study the behavior of colorful pollinators like the rare Godman’s metalmark. But early on, she noticed the activities of another pollinator: bees.

The bees she saw nested almost exclusively in one patch of Masaya. There, temperatures climbed as high as 42°C, and an acid rain—caused by sulfur dioxide fumes from the volcano—occasionally lashed the upper reaches of the mountain. Nothing visible grew. She wondered: Why were the bees there?

Erenler launched a study with researchers and citizen scientists from around the globe. First, they wanted to figure out just how many bees were present—no simple task. She and her team battled the sweltering temperatures and wore gas masks while searching for nests. They visited the site five times over 3 years, and estimated a population of 1000 to 2000 bees. But years of observations left them with more questions, including the mystery of what the bees were eating.

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